It was 6:45 a.m. and I was working on the “spoil the dogs and cats routine” when Rose wandered down the stairs and into the kitchen. She looked around rather blurry eyed and said, “I want one.” I was stumped—-one dog biscuit, one can of half eaten cat food? “One what?” I asked her. “I don’t know,” she responded and sat down on the floor next to the heat register.
Ever since that morning last week, I have been pondering over this strange exchange. I felt much the same way at Penney’s recently. I had gotten one of those coupons in the mail—spend 25 dollars and get 10 dollars off. Since everything in Penney’s is always on sale anyway, I could probably buy 40 dollars’ worth of things for 15 dollars—what a deal! And so with a little extra time in town, my car just seemed to direct itself to the mall parking lot. I wandered the aisles and picked up socks for Rose for her stocking and some fleecy pajama bottoms to be wrapped and put under the tree. But I hadn’t reached my 25 dollar minimum so I kept looking, thinking I might even find something for my own stocking (something Santa forgets to fill, except the year that Helen put in a scrap of paper with the words “a lump of coal” written on it). But there came a point when I realized something. It wasn’t just that we didn’t really need anything but that I didn’t know what I wanted or what Rose wanted. And so I put the socks and fleecy bottoms back where they belonged and left the store.
At the age of 34, I had one of those lightbulb moments when I knew that the difficult part of something was less the doing than the figuring out what you really wanted. I was leaving Australia and traveling home via Africa and possibly Europe. As the deadline to buy the airline tickets got closer, I became more and more anxious about what my plan should be. I had three options and the longest one was the trickiest, as it caused me to be in South Africa for four weeks without a place to stay while waiting to meet a teacher friend in Switzerland. But when I asked myself what I really wanted to do, I knew it was this longer and more complicated trip, in spite of my concerns. And that’s what I did. Only days after I arrived in Cape Town, I was invited to live and work during those four weeks with a woman teaching English to children who were not allowed to attend school because their Black African parents were not legal workers (this was in the days of apartheid). I will never forget those children and their eagerness to learn. It was very clear that they knew what they wanted. They wanted to be able to go to school.
When I got home from the mall, I did something I knew I wanted. I bought shares of goats from Heifer International in honor of people on my Christmas list. I do this every year, not because I should but because I want to. I love to see the cards when they arrive and to decide who to give them to. I like to think about the little girl who will receive the animal and care for it as carefully as a loved pet. How she will drink the milk and sell the extra for money that will give her the books and uniform to allow her to go to school.
Several days after the Penney’s experience, I spent a Sunday afternoon with Rose. We ate at a new café in town and stopped at the library. We found ourselves in the mall at the end of our outing, as I had to return some earrings that Helen thought she needed for her winter formal and then didn’t use (“My hair covers my ears now, so what’s the point?”). And there we were, in Claire’s with another deal—buy two pairs of earrings and get one pair free. I wasn’t being a complete sucker as Rose needed one pair with better quality metal for her recently pierced ears to heal well. So we found those and that left two pairs to get (one free, remember). “What do you want,” I asked her. She looked at me with quite a determined face and said, “I want us to have matching dangly bells that we can wear together for Christmas.” There was no hesitation, no doubt this time. And so we found some, red and silver bells with plenty of jingle which Rose does not want to wear to school, for as she put it, “I think it would be irritating to others in class.” We will wear them when we go to holiday outings, a nice reminder of our afternoon together.
I know there’s another little girl somewhere who knows what she wants. It’s much more basic than matching dangling earrings. She wants to go to school. And she wants a goat so this can happen. And I want to help her get one. It’s important to know what you want. Once you’ve gotten that far, you’re more than halfway there.